Coming Alive in “Dangerous” Barcelona

Fire burns everywhere.  Dragons and monsters have eyes that spew hot sparks into anyone who dares to come close.  Hordes of men and women dressed in medieval costumes with fire torches in hand swing the oh-so-real flares into the crowd.  I watch from a distance at first, but soon I’m drawn into the crowd and I can’t help myself.  I’m underneath the fire sticks now, with sparks flying over and around me.  I’m a little scared and panicked at first, but then, suddenly exhilarated. I can feel my heart beating fast, but I love the tingling feeling of being hit by the burning embers, while trying to cover my eyes.  The crowd gets more energetic, the beat of the drums gets louder, and with every sip of the alcoholic beverage of your choice that you indulge in, the behavior gets riskier and more daring.  While most people would run for their life, I shed a small tear – only 10 days after our home was destroyed during hurricane Harvey, I feel very much alive at Corre Foc (Fire Run) in Barcelona.


I’ve never been very concerned about hurricanes.  I didn’t grow up around them in my native Norway, and even dozens of storms around us over the years never really impacted us.  Therefore, I didn’t take Hurricane Harvey very seriously.  I was amused when my wife, a native Texan, started packing her cowboy boots and crystals and warned me to at least pack some of my belongings.  I didn’t even bother taking a change of clothing with me, as I thought it would be a quick overnight stay with the in-laws and then back to work the next day.  Two days turned to three, then to four, and then, what I never even imagined – our house sat in three feet of water.  Like 80 percent of Houston, we didn’t have flood insurance.  The loss for an average family like ours was financially devastating. Moreover, I had to take shelter in a hotel near my house, away from my wife and daughter, who remained with the in-laws during the rebuilding process.


There were many other hardships as well, but this is not a story about a hurricane, nor resilience, nor survival.  My blogs are about traveling, mental health, and overall wellness.  I love traveling, so in the middle of our despair, my biggest concern is – do we still go? You know, to Barcelona, a trip I had anticipated for several months.   My parents and in-laws thought we were irresponsible and crazy, but my wife reluctantly understood.  This is something we needed.  “Let’s go to Espana,” my wife wrote in a text, and off we went a couple of days later!


I don’t particularly care for being a tourist, but I love being a traveler.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible not to be the former in touristy Barcelona.  Sure, we enjoyed the Gaudi-created Park Guell, the quirky Sagrada Familia and the ever-bustling Las Ramblas.  However, I had come to see La Merce, the yearly festival very much rooted in deep traditions and made for locals to celebrate their history.  Of course, there are plenty of tourists here too – this is after all Barcelona – but you still get a sense of discovery and unpredictability.  
All the La Merce events and concerts are free, and there are at least a hundred of them in the 4-5 days that the festival takes place.   The highlight for many is the castelleros – the human towers where the strongest of men hold 4-7 stacks of people on top of each other to form a pyramid. It looks dangerous – the last person on top is typically 30-40 feet off the ground – and the crowd is electrified as one group shows off one after the other.  The cool thing is that the castelleros are right in the middle of the crowd – with no stage or safety barriers, a slip could potentially mean a fall from high above into spectators.  But such is Spain and many place in the world.  In the US where we live, there are plenty of festivals and events. But almost all of them are extremely safe, very orderly and very predictable.  There are always tons of corporate sponsors, lots of security, and entrance fees.  And there is never anything remotely dangerous or spontaneous.


When the festival began, we entered a small plaza with no idea what is about to happen.  Giant mannequins exited the local town-hall and music started playing, along with clapping and cheers from the crowd. My daughter, who was a year and a half at the time, begin clapping and singing as well, with the biggest smile I had seen on her face in a while.  Just that moment in itself made the trip worth it for me.  I shed another tear (what can I say, I am a softie), and joined the festivities as the procession continued throughout the streets.  Much to my wife’s dismay, I even took my daughter to the children’s fire run, where mini dragons spewed a less potent version of the fire sparks.  Don’t worry, she survived just fine. 


In truth, spending quality time with my daughter and wife was the highlight of the trip.  I took my daughter to buy a loaf of bread every morning, I sat and drank coffee on the terrace with my wife every day, and we enjoyed our evening paseo.  We also experienced some real protests, as Catalonia was fighting for independence. At 9 p.m. every evening, residents started banging on pots and pans and honking their horns to show their support.  My slightly anxious wife was worried about a riot, but I assured her that it was “probably fine.”  I secretly enjoyed the air of perceived danger.  


These family moments made it to where I never, for one second, regretted going on the trip.  I believe my mental health would have suffered and the recovery process would have been harder. I came home more optimistic about our house, our future and the prospect of rebuilding. Sure we were poorer, but I felt rejuvenated and full of life.  
In US, I live a fairly ordinary life.  I go to work, I come home, we make dinner, fall asleep, and start over.  On this trip, I got to experience a sense of excitement, a sense of danger, and a sense of being alive.  I was not only Marcel, counselor and a family man, but Marcel, someone that can do the fire run and potentially save a falling castellero.   
Sure it’s not running with the bulls (maybe next year?  No, I’m kidding honey), but the body doesn’t know the difference. I think we all need a little spark or unpredictable excitement from time to time.  Is it safe for me to drink that expired milk? How many calories is in this ice cream?  Do we really have be that cautious with everything we do?  For our mental health well-being, we all need to be a part of the world, play like a child, explore the unknown, eat anything we like, have some great sex, and be a part of the world. Now, where do I sign up for the next festival?

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